Thursday, 16 August 2012
Using a negative reinforcement technique to change Equine Behaviour
Gemma Pearson, one of our vets within the Equine Clinic at the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies and a member of the ISES-UK 2012 Committee, which organised the ISES conference sponsored by the Jeanne Marchig International Centre for Animal Welfare Education (JMICAWE), explains that by applying simple, scientifically validated training techniques, she is able to work with ‘difficult’ horses to successfully get them to change their behaviour, from being fearful and thus at times dangerous to becoming less stressed and calm.
Read her article in Sept’s H O R S E & R I D E R magazine .... it shouldn’t happen to a vet.
Horse vets are highly trained
to diagnose and treat
injuries and disease.
However, their work with
sick horses places them at a high
risk of personal injury.
UK vet Gemma Pearson
surveyed vets and support staff at
the Equine Clinic at the Royal (Dick)
College of Veterinary Science in
Edinburgh, and found that in a year,
eight staff experienced an injury
serious enough to need treatment,
with five requiring hospitalisation.
Staff reported that they
horses that put their personal
safety at risk on a daily basis.
“Within the constraints of a busy
clinic responsible for specialist
referrals for Scotland and much of
northern England, developing
strategies to reduce injuries by
improving horse handling was a
priority,” Gemma says. “By applying
simple, scientifically validated
training techniques, we were able
to handle a number of horses who
had previously injured the handlers
and vets treating them.”
Gemma’s work focused on two
of the most common sources of
difficult behaviour; refusing to enter
the examination stocks and being
needle-shy, which staff reported
encountering on a daily basis.
“To manage horses which were
reluctant to enter the examination
stocks, we applied a negative
reinforcement technique, which
involved applying a mildly aversive
cue to the horse and then
rewarding him for approaching the
stocks by taking the cue away.
“In this way, the horses learn
that approaching and then entering
the stocks will result in the cue
disappearing,” she explains. “Within a
very short period our ‘difficult’ horses
were calmly entering and remaining in
Gemma continues: “Our needle-shy
horses had previously reared up and
injured vets, however, by applying a
technique known as overshadowing,
we were able to give these horses
injections without danger to ourselves
or the horse.” Overshadowing involves
applying a neutral cue – to step back
or come forwards from pressure on
the halter – while also exposing the
horse to the object it fears, in this
case, the needle.
“We started very gradually and
broke the injection process down into
small steps,” she explains. “By
ensuring that the horse responded to
our neutral cues immediately and
calmly, we could overshadow his fear
of the needle. Within a single session,
we could administer an injection.”
Key to both methods is making
sure that the horse stays as calm and
relaxed as possible, reducing the
likelihood it will react fear fully or
uncontrollably, so the treatment can
be completed efficiently and with a
minimum of stress to horse or vet.
While traditional restraint
techniques such as sedation and
nose twitching will always have a
place, vets incorporating these simple
scientific techniques reduce their risk
of injury and boost client confidence.
“We believe that horses and their
owners will benefit enormously from a
reduction in the stress and anxiety,”
Gemma Pearson concludes.
Gemma presented these findings at
the 2012 International Society for
Equitation Science (ISES) conference
– ISES is a not-for-profit organisation
that aims to facilitate research into
the training of horses to enhance
horse welfare and improve the horserider
Gemma can be contacted through the R(D)SVS first referral equine clinic or the equine hospital at the Dick Vet on 0131 650 6253.